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February 20, 2008

Apparently John McCain's Keating adventures weren't the only time his personal connections became risky business for his political career:

Early in Senator John McCain’s first run for the White House eight years ago, waves of anxiety swept through his small circle of advisers.

A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity.

When news organizations reported that Mr. McCain had written letters to government regulators on behalf of the lobbyist’s client, the former campaign associates said, some aides feared for a time that attention would fall on her involvement.

Mr. McCain, 71, and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40, both say they never had a romantic relationship. But to his advisers, even the appearance of a close bond with a lobbyist whose clients often had business before the Senate committee Mr. McCain led threatened the story of redemption and rectitude that defined his political identity.

It had been just a decade since an official favor for a friend with regulatory problems had nearly ended Mr. McCain’s political career by ensnaring him in the Keating Five scandal. In the years that followed, he reinvented himself as the scourge of special interests, a crusader for stricter ethics and campaign finance rules, a man of honor chastened by a brush with shame.

But the concerns about Mr. McCain’s relationship with Ms. Iseman underscored an enduring paradox of his post-Keating career. Even as he has vowed to hold himself to the highest ethical standards, his confidence in his own integrity has sometimes seemed to blind him to potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest.

McCain strikes me as a fundamentally honorable guy . . . so honorable that he doesn't realize when he's getting himself in a mess. Most politicians would do the risky things, but take more care not to get caught. I'm not sure whether this is a feature or a bug.

For more on McCain's erstwhile iconoclasm, I highly recommend you watch/listen to Will Wilkinson interview Matt Welch, the editor of Reason magazine and the world's greatest living libertarian expert on John McCain. His book on the topic is a highly interesting read.

Update: The McCain campaign is apparently responding. It's a pretty wan non-denial denial, but I hear there's more substantive rebuttal to come. CNN notes "This may end up being a story about the New York Times as about John McCain." One does kind of wonder why they're breaking an eight year-old story now.

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